In Which This Constitutes A Troubling Question

What I Do

by MOLLY CAMERON

“So, what do you do?”

This is my most dreaded question in a social setting. And it’s an inevitable one when you’re meeting new people, especially in New York City. After everyone in the group has shared where they live and which train they take and how much that train sucks, we all move on to what we “do.” Most people have simple answers:

“I’m a copy editor.”

“I run a catering business.”

“I teach high school English”

And then it comes around to me and I say something dumb like:

“You mean, where I work?  Or what I do outside of work? Or, like, a combination of both? Because it’s complicated.”

But it’s not, really.  The truth is that I work a mentally exhausting day job and I’m not succeeding on a real, tangible level at the things I pursue outside of my day job and honestly: I don’t know what I “do.” But how do you say that to a group of people you’ve just met at a birthday party?

I’ve tried emphasizing just one thing, hoping that would end the conversation, but it never really works.  I often start with my day job:

“I do customer support for a tech company.”

But then people want to know more about the company and I have to try and sound smart about it.  Or, even worse, in a room full of creatives, I just get a small “oh, cool” with a fake smile and then everyone wanders back to where the beers are, with a mixed look of pity and confusion for me being in such a boring industry.  And I want to chase after them and say “I know!  It feels like a waste of brain activity to me too!” but I also don’t want the panic in my voice to come out too quickly.  But it’s too late and they’re all taking about their new web series or podcast or McSweeney’s article so I swallow and smile and try to live vicariously through them for the next hour.

If I try to emphasize my real passions I’m just as doomed:

“I’m a writer.”

Because we all know the next question.

“Oh cool, what do you write?”

Crap.

“Um, I write a short pieces on websites and stuff but right now I’m really concentrating on blogging.  I’ve got a few Tumblrs. I’m also sort of working on a memoir-ish thing.  Oh, and I do Morning Pages. Have you heard of The Artist’s Way?”

But they’re already backing away towards the beer, desperately trying to make eye contact with someone over my head.  So I smile again and pretend it didn’t happen.

It’s just as bad if I focus on other things:

“I’m a performer.  Mostly comedy stuff.”

Because then, like saying you’re a writer, people want details.

“Oh cool!  Like stand up and stuff?”

“Ummm, yeah, I’ve done stand up before.  Like five or six times.  In my life.”

“Oh.  So you do plays?  Or TV or something?”

“Well… um… I do sketch comedy sometimes.  I use to have a sketch group back in 2011.  Oh, and I did some background work last year!  Do you watch the Investigation Discovery channel?”

And they’re gone.

One of these days I want to tell the real, absolute truth.

“You want to know what I do?  What I really and truly DO?

I ramble in a journal for 30 minutes every morning and I save all the completed books in the hope that someday I might discover a work of genius in their pages.  Or maybe someone else will after I’m dead and I’ll feel fulfilled from the beyond.

I hoard magazines so I can cut them up and make dark and weird collages and birthday cards.

I daydream about the ‘70s music scene, wishing so badly that I could see David Bowie play a Ziggy Stardust show and go to CBGB before it became a John Varvatos.

I imagine what my mom was like at my age and think about how she already had two kids while I still live with two roommates.

I create iTunes playlists for every mood or occasion: wake-up music, concentration music, getting-pumped-to-go-out music, cooking-dinner music, let’s-be-thirteen-right-now music.

I go to hip hop dance classes and fantasize about getting good enough to be a backup dancer for Missy Elliott, whenever she decides to tour again.

I stand in my kitchen and eat chocolate chips out of a shot glass and wonder how the microwave got so gross but I don’t clean it.

I walk around downtown with my boyfriend and we pick out the very old brick houses and try to guess who might have lived there in the 1880s.

I watch that scene in Boogie Nights where they try to rob Alfred Molina just to appreciate the segue from “Sister Christian” to “Jessie’s Girl” and see if the firecrackers still make me jump.  They always do.

I flip through all of my cookbooks and daydream about what I might cook when I decide to spend money on specialty ingredients.

I go to happy hours that last three hours and I drink Jameson and play every Bowie song in the jukebox and laugh with my friends about dumb things we’ve done that day.

I think about what I might be doing right now if I had accepted the offer to train at Circle in the Square in the summer of 2004 instead of getting a job.

I tell embarrassing stories about myself to large groups of people and melt with relief when they laugh.

I sit in coffee shops and tap thoughts like this into my computer to see the white space fill up with words and feel like I’m getting somewhere and accomplishing something.  Now that life isn’t evaluated by good grades or audiences who feel forced to applaud, every period to a sentence is my own tiny award for finishing a coherent thought.  I keep going.  I don’t have a path or a vision board or a career strategy, but I just keep moving in this direction and trusting that something cool will eventually happen.”

That’s what I do.  And if anyone knows how to condense all that into a single, crowd-friendly phrase, please let me know.

Molly Cameron is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about her hospital stay. You can find her website here.

“Sound & Vision” –  David Bowie (mp3)

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